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On Exhibit:
Denver of Old

Books:
From Pompeii to the World Trade Center: A review of Ghosts of Vesuvius
Paleontology On the Shelf


Denver of Old

Over time, all landscapes shift, and Denver, Colo., in the Denver Basin, is no exception. Permian sands gave way to a wide ancient sea in the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Not long after the mass extinction at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary, 65 million years ago, the area was covered with tropical rainforests. At two different points in time, the Rocky Mountains rose. Many more environments have come and gone, leaving behind a setting suited to today’s thriving and ever-growing metropolis.

To illustrate the varied past of this region and the power of geologic processes through time, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has put together an exhibit, consisting of several landscape paintings created by local artists. Reproductions of several of the paintings are also on display in Colorado state parks. Additionally, the museum has published a companion book called Ancient Denvers: Scenes from the Past 300 Million Years of the Colorado Front Range, in which the paintings are published alongside detailed descriptions of the landscapes and a map to guide you along your tour of the geologic remnants of Denver.

See Geotimes in print for images from the exhibit.

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Book review

Ghosts of Vesuvius: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall, and Other Strange Connections

by Charles Pellegrino.
William Morrow & Company, 2004.
ISBN 0 3809 7310 3.
Hardcover, $25.95.


From Pompeii to the World Trade Center
John Eichelberger

If you want to learn some new things about the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius and its destruction of Pompeii, you can read Ghosts of Vesuvius, but only if you exercise great patience. The author doesn’t start to get down to business on Vesuvius until page 140. Even then, it’s only a toe in the door. A better title for the book would be “An Amazing Autobiography of Charles Pellegrino.”

This book is part of the catastrophe genre currently in vogue. A problem for the writer of such a book is that most catastrophes are quickly over. An author must therefore have a prologue and epilogue with which to better understand the event and to fill a few hundred pages. James Michener, when he was writing about Alaska and not catastrophes, began with cavorting beavers. Pellegrino can claim the prize by starting with the Big Bang. Actually, he doesn’t start there. He works his way back in time from A.D. 79 to t = 0 and then rockets forward again. Einstein is referred to as a “descendent” of early protons. This first progression backwards is the most orderly part of the book. After that, Pellegrino travels through time at will.

Words that come to mind to describe the book are creative, original, self-congratulatory and disorganized. Seldom have I seen an author play such a large role in his voyage into history. We see the author as a teenager, precociously propounding the theory that life could evolve in oceans beneath the ice of cold planets. We hear him conversing with his good friends Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Stephen J. Gould on matters of cosmic import. Stephen Hawkins is heard to opine about a theory of spirituality by Pellegrino and colleagues, as well as a Pellegrino-and-Sagan theory of the universe. We watch Pellegrino explore the Titanic and illuminate the “physics” of the event. We follow him as he follows Haraldur Sigurdson through Pompeii. Finally, we accompany him as he purportedly solves new mysteries concerning the final moments and fall of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The main components of the book, besides the autobiography, are embellished science and embellished history. I hated the embellished science and enjoyed some of the embellished history. Were I a historian, perhaps it would have been the other way around. Some of the science is blatantly wrong. For example, silicon is not Earth’s most abundant ion (oxygen is), and subducted carbonate does not turn into erupted lava.

There are, however, some real gems of thought in the book. It’s helpful to appreciate, for example, how much Vesuvius saved through destruction and what impact there was on our culture when first the towns of Pompeii and then Herculaneum were unearthed. People could see how advanced the Romans were and realize how much had to be reinvented after the Dark Ages. The discoveries inspired architecture, philosophy and governance. We should recall that the American creed e pluribus unum was adopted from the Roman Empire. Vesuvius also fossilized evidence of the rapid spread toward Rome of the new Christian religion.

In philosophizing, Pellegrino ranges from the profound to the silly. It is interesting to consider that our civilization could fall apart and that future civilizations might marvel at how close we came to “real” achievement. But some may question the basis of his assertion that the American empire is the most benevolent in the history of the universe.

For entertainment, Pellegrino relies too much on imagining and repeating the horrors of “3-second” vaporization of bodies at Pompeii and the more drawn out agony of victims of September 11. And what is the link he makes between Vesuvius and the World Trade Center? For both events, he explains, column collapse generated pyroclastic/building-clastic flows! Again and again we see the pyroclastic cloud rush towards us or hear the building collapsing upon us.

A unique mix of brilliant insight and egregious errors, the book is a self-absorbed attempt at a view that is universal in time and space that includes a pinch of nationalism and repetitive attempts to shock the reader. To modify the motto of a challenging ski area in Vermont, “read it if you can.”

Being provoked is healthy, sometimes. In this case, I’m unsure. A scan of the Web revealed some reviewers enthralled with Pellegrino’s brilliance and one nauseated by his self-absorption. Oh, and apparently there’s a movie coming. The most similar book I’ve read, Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, has a much higher signal-to-noise ratio.

It wasn’t a waste of time reading this book. I learned some things. I got angry about other things. The book did cause me to think and to look at some things differently. I will not read another mistitled autobiography by Pellegrino, but if someone writes his biography, I will read it with interest to see how faithfully it follows Ghosts of Vesuvius.


Eichelberger is professor of volcanology and chair in the department of geology and geophysics at the College of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, and coordinating scientist of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

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Paleontology On the Shelf

 

 

No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species
by Richard Ellis.
HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
ISBN 0 06 055803 2. Hardcover, $25.95.


Throughout time, plant and animal species have been wiped out by natural phenomena, disease, climate change and habitat loss, and more recently, by Homo sapiens. In No Turning Back, Richard Ellis, a renowned naturalist, takes an in-depth look at animal species from the prehistoric to the modern day. He not only discusses possible scenarios for extinctions in the geologic past, but also sheds light on the species that humans have affected, and those that humans have brought back from the brink of extinction.


 

 

 

 

Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities: The Causes of Mass Extinctions
by Tony Hallam.
Oxford University Press, 2004.
ISBN 0 19 852497 8. Hardcover, $24.95.

Tony Hallam has debated with Walter Alvarez, Dave Raup and others, who are confirmed catastrophists, about the impact of impacts. A paleontologist and expert in sea level changes from 590 million years ago to the present-day, Hallam has co-authored several books on mass extinctions and why they happen, but his most recent, Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities, is a solo venture, intended as a layperson-friendly, pocket-sized guide to the mass-extinction debate.

Hallam summarizes catastrophic causes to more gradual ones — from volcanic flood basalts and cyclical meteor impacts on Earth to climate change and sea-level rise. In the end he argues that all of these must play a role in species’ extinction, and that teasing them apart in the paleorecord is insanely difficult. The one conclusion he does come to is that humans play a significant role in the current wave of extinctions. And then he backs it up with suggested readings (and a glossary for the lay people who stick with him).


 

 

 

 

Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century — On Earth and Beyond
by Sir Martin Rees.
Basic Books, 2004.
ISBN 0 465 06863 4. Paperback, $15.00.

Sir Martin Rees, the distinguished royal astronomer from Cambridge University, turns his gaze from the stars to planet Earth — a practice he notes is common to those who study cosmology. His wide-ranging commentary hits designer-baby genetics, nuclear power and the latest wave of extinctions on the planet that are human-induced. He also notes that past futurists have had difficulty in making accurate assessments of the next big thing — a forward-looking committee writing in Scientific American in the 1930s completely missed the promise of antibiotics, for example, which had been in existence for almost a decade by then. Though alarming, Sir Martin’s meditations are engaging, even if his prose sometimes bumps and his references seem esoteric.


 

 

Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
by David Christian.
University of California Press, 2005.
ISBN 0 520 24476 1. Paperback, $19.95.

“Macro-history,” “big time” — whatever you wish to call it, David Christian attempts to put humans and their history into the context of the longer time periods of Earth. He briefly visits the geologic history of the planet, and then devotes the rest of his voluminous text to the evolution and development of modern humans, with forays into their effects on the planet and each other. With suggested readings and literature cited, this 600-plus-paged “introduction” reads like a friendly, poetic textbook — perhaps to be expected when reading about “big history.”




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